Joshua Tree National Park: Unforgettable desert silhouettes

Lost Horse Valley
January 16, 2018 11:07 AM

Spikey, gnarled Joshua trees and tilting rock formations punctuate the open skies over the Mojave and Colorado deserts in this stretch of Southern California. Throughout its history, Joshua Tree's remarkable landscape has attracted artists and filmmakers, miners and cowboys. While the park is a haven for rock climbers, it's equally suited to groups of campers who simply want to stroll, stargaze, and breathe the desert air.

Facts and figures

  • The park's iconic tree species was named for the Biblical figure Joshua, the story goes, because its limbs resembled arms outstretched in prayer
  • The park spans nearly 793,000 acres
  • U2's iconic cover for the Joshua Tree album was actually shot in Death Valley, not at Joshua Tree
  • The highest elevation—5,814 feet—is at Quail Mountain
  • About 1.4 million people a year visit Joshua Tree

In the 1920s, as roads were built, people began removing cacti and other deserts plants to put them in Los Angeles gardens. Pasadena resident Minerva Hoyt undertook a campaign to protect these plants, founding the International Deserts Conservation League and advocating for federal protection of desert lands. Thanks in large part to her efforts, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. It was granted national park status in 1994.

Things to see and do
Most of the park's facilities are clustered in the northwestern section of the park, which is bordered by the San Bernardino Mountains. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is the main gateway to the park; two other visitor centers lie along the northern edge, and a fourth lies farther south.

Pack a picnic and head to the family-friendly Hidden Valley trail, a one-mile loop where you'll see towering jumbles of rocks and, of course, the park's iconic trees. From Hidden Valley, it's about a 15-minute drive to the breathtaking Keys View, where you can look across the Coachella Valley from the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, a view that includes the San Andreas Fault and Salton Sea. Campgrounds near here include Hidden Valley, Ryan and (for large groups) Sheep Pass.

About eight miles east of Hidden Valley lies Skull Rock, another popular attraction along the main park road. You can drive right up to this eerie display of granite eroded by rainfall, but if your group is up for a walk, an easy 1.7-mile loop takes you around the area and is also accessible from the nearby Jumbo Rocks campground.

Queen Valley sunset

Other campgrounds near here include Belle and White Tank. To witness what looks like an army of cacti, be sure also to check out the Cholla Cactus Garden about 13 miles down the road southeast of Skull Rock.

Good for families and beginner campers, Black Rock Canyon at the far northwestern edge of the park is only about five miles from amenities in the town of Yucca Valley if you need to pick up supplies. A small nature center at the campground has maps, guides and staff who can help plan activities. All kinds of hiking trails take you through the hills nearby, from the 1.3-mile Hi-View Nature Trail to the more challenging 4.7-mile West Side Loop.

Rock formations surround the Indian Cove camping area at the central north edge of the park, making it popular with rock climbers. The half-mile Indian Cove Trail offers a chance to learn about desert plants and their traditional uses. To the east lies the Oasis of Mara, an area with a rich history of use by Native Americans, miners and cowboys. It was named as a "place of little springs and much grass" by the Serrano people who first settled there.

At the southern end of the park, Cottonwood Spring is billed as one of Joshua Tree's best-kept secrets. Popular with birders, the spring was a water source for gold mills and traveling prospectors. On the three-mile Mastodon Peak Trail, which has a "moderate" difficulty rating, you'll pass an old gold mine and beautiful views. For a very short, easy walk, check out the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center's path through fan palm and cottonwood trees.

Joshua Tree's nine campgrounds tend to fill up on weekends from October through May and during the week from mid-February through mid-May. Plan to reserve a site or have a backup plan. There are also several private campgrounds nearby—consult the website for a list.

Best time to go
Peak season at Joshua Tree runs from October through May, when temperatures are the most comfortable (highs around 85°F and lows around 50°F), but the park is open year-round. If you brave the summer, keep in mind that daytime temperatures can exceed 100°F.


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